HowTheLightGetsIn

Ten days of big ideas in Hay-on-Wye.

The New Statesman is delighted to be a media partner for this year's HowTheLightGetsIn festival in Hay-on-Wye. HTLGI is, in the organisers' description, "the world's largest philosophy and music festival". This year's feast of big ideas in the Welsh borders begins on Thursday 31 May and runs until Sunday 10 June.

Hilary Lawson, the festival director, says:

I little imagined five years ago when we held our first debate in a converted Methodist chapel in Hay-on-Wye that HowTheLightGetsIn would become the largest philosophy and music festival in the world. Five years on, we're back with a full programme of over 450 events across ten days and expecting over 35,000 visitors. The intention was always to take philosophy out of the academy and into people's lives, to encourage real dialogue about issues that matter and to invite leading thinkers with new ideas to share, rather than celebrities looking to plug their latest book. It's great to see this in action on the festival site and to watch our digital audience grow via iai.tv, where we post all of our debates, solo talks and live performances.

The range of speakers is too vast to summarise here, but highlights include: Jim Al-Khalili on chaos theory; Mary Midgley and Ruth Padel on poetic theories; David Aaronovitch and David Blunkett on the ends of ideals; James Lovelock on freedom of scientific speech; Raymond Tallis on music and neuroscience; Galen Strawson on the mind; Barry C Smith's philosophical wine-tasting; Steven Pinker on the decline of violence; and Peter Singer on humans and animals.

On Friday 1 June, New Statesman culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire will chair a session entitled "Uncharted Territory: Progress for a new era", with Giles Fraser, Hilary Rose, Bjorn Lomborg and Ziauddin Sardar. The following day, at 12pm, Jonathan will debate the ramifications of Stephen Hawking's recent declaration that philosophy is dead with Lewis Wolpert and Steve Fuller. In the afternoon, he will chair a debate on the "rationality of climate change" with Nigel Lawson, Bjorn Lomborg, Polly Higgins and Barry C Smith.

To see the full programme and to book tickets, click here.

Performers on the streets of Hay-on-Wye (Photo: Getty Images)
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Utopian tale of Milton Keynes weaves together social history and memoir

Meanwhile Bake Off squares up to the BBC's new Family Cooking Showdown.

Central Milton Keynes: you’ve never seen anything like it, as the song on the Eighties promotional flexi-disc used to go. This is rubbish, of course. With its dreary shopping centres, boring-looking estates and endless roundabouts, Milton Keynes looks, at the beginning of the 21st century, like the newer and more depressing parts of lots of other places – the only difference being, I suppose, that it comprises nothing but these parts. Conceived in 1967 and developed from scratch in green fields at a cost of £1.5bn, the new town’s great and unsolvable problem is that it has no immemorial heart, no superannuated soul. It wants for layers, and therefore for mystery and concomitant charm. Yes, some people will claim, if pushed, to love it: “The trees!” they say, as if London and Birmingham have no parks at all. But their praise, when it comes, always sounds to me rather shifty, like they’re avoiding telling you that any minute now they’ll be catching a train to somewhere lovelier and more exciting.

The film-maker Richard Macer (Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue) caught a train to somewhere more exciting when he went to university at the age of 18, but a few months ago, shortly before both he and Milton Keynes hit 50, he returned, shacking up with his parents in his childhood home in order to make a documentary about the town (screened, now, as part of BBC Four’s Utopia season). As a child, he told us, he felt MK was a bit of a joke: those wretched concrete cows. But in adulthood he was sweetly protective, offering us Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Horse and the shiny travertine floors of its Grade II-listed shopping centre by way of two delights (after which he did start to struggle somewhat). In what way had the town formed him, though? This was harder to say. As a teenager, he attended a comprehensive where, once a month, pupils were invited to devote a whole day to an activity such as trampolining; every Tuesday, his family ate macaroni cheese. Basically, he might have been anywhere.

Still, I loved his film, which wove social history and memoir pretty seamlessly together. Cunningly, Macer’s voice and his camera did different things. If the former was kind and occasionally fulsome, the latter told another story. Interviewing Anthony Spira, the current director of MK’s purpose-built gallery, the narrative was all about the importance the town planners placed on culture for the masses. But beyond the window, things looked ever cheerless: another dual carriageway, yet more traffic lights. Touring the town with members of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, all the chat was of these structures’ essential beauty: those covered with greenery are referred to by fans as “Titchmarshes” and “Monty Dons”. When Macer and the others disembarked their vehicle for a closer look, however, it seemed to me they should really be known as Ballards or Burgesses (for those noted dystopians). “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” asked the TV marketing campaign for the town. Macer’s wry and quietly assertive film revealed that the correct answer to this question is still: “No, it really wouldn’t.”

How many cooking shows can a country take? It may be that we will shortly have had our fill. If the cynicism currently emanating from Channel 4, the new home of The Great British Bake-Off, doesn’t do it – Sandi Toksvig, its presenter, recently revealed that she doesn’t really care for television – then surely The Big Family Cooking Showdown will. “Be nice or leave,” said a sign in the home of one of the families competing in the first episode, a decorative fixture that might just as well, alas, have been a stage direction. Everyone is just so bloody kind: not only its presenters, Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain, who spend their time hugging everyone and everything, but also its judges, the cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager and the chef Giorgio Locatelli. Do the latter have chemistry? No. Shrager is a bit too mistress-at-St-Trinian’s for that. But in his Klein-blue jacket, Locatelli, at least, is a sight for sore eyes: a majestic loaf of artisanal sourdough compared to the plastic sliced white that is Paul Hollywood.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear